Sunday, July 20, 2008

Frizz Frame: In Search of Frizzy Heroines

The message is powerful. As pungent as the odor from a bottle of perm solution.

Frizzy hair means geek, wacko, frazzled, frayed, untamed, uncivilized, unacceptable.

After all, when was the last time you saw a frizzy-maned leading lady walk into the sunset with the sexy hunk? Certainly not in “The Way We Were” or “Princess Diaries.”

Unless of course the leading lady gets a makeover, calms the curls or all out straightens them. This usually comes with other “improvements” like a nicer wardrobe, makeup and plucked eyebrows, ditching the glasses and braces.

The most recent example? “The Women,” a 2008 remake of a 1939 film now starring Meg Ryan — with a mass of cascading curls — who discovers her husband is having an affair with a perfume saleswoman, the smoothly-styled Eva Mendes. Ryan’s curls are not even frizzy. Bo-ho chic, maybe. But if you believe the not-so-subtle subtext, Ryan’s way to victory is through a flat iron. Need more proof? Her BFF, Annette Bening, a Hermes bag-toting high-powered magazine editor. Her style: straight. Stick straight. Another friend, Jada Pinkett Smith, also with straightened locks, is a smart, hip writer. One friend has frizzy hair: Debra Messing. Guess what? She plays the oft-frazzled, endearingly goofy earth mom, pregnant with yet another child. It would be nice to think some of the film’s bad reviews were by curly heads who are not going to take it any more.

The reality is, movies just don’t have a lot of time to build a character. So unless you read the book, you probably don’t know the back story. So they use superficial traits and hints we all agree on to make sure we get it. (You didn’t know you were so judgmental, did you?)

Sure, there are exceptions. The frizzy hair message is not always a total put down. Some women with frizz actually do get the guys. There’s Sarah Jessica Parker, best known for playing loveable fashionista Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City” (most recently made into a movie). She often lets her frizz flag fly.

More common are the heroines like Cher in “Moonstruck” (1987). Her wild mane with streaks of gray didn’t dissuade the already smitten Nicholas Cage, though he wasn’t any major catch. Frankly, Cher’s hair spoke more to her working class roots and lack of sophistication than any kind of style. Even she gets beautified (neater curls and hair color) for a date with Cage at the MET.

There are also plenty of frizz-filled frames in movies made around the 1980s, mainly because they reflect the big-hair, perm-rage of the time.

For the most part, though, frizz is more typical among supporting roles — character pieces or “the unattractive best friend” — certainly not emblematic of the heroine, the leading lady we love for her beauty and success in life.

Here are just a few examples from movie history:

“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

Examples don’t get much better than this. This film pretty much set the standard for hair from hell hair (with added streaks of gray as a bonus). The Bride of Frankenstein’s frizzy out-of-control mane unmistakably telegraphed everything you want to avoid in a woman. After all, she was a monster. And not a likable one at that. As movie lore goes, to get the look actress Elsa Lanchester’s frizzy auburn hair was actually brushed over a wired horsehair cage. Nice. I mean, you don’t seriously expect to see the Bride of Frankenstein with Miss America curls or a swingy flapper cut. It had to be wild. It looked electrified. What better style to invoke fear than frizz?

“Little Orphan Annie” (1938), remade as “Annie” (1982)

Well, sure, if she’d had cute hair — nice straight bouncy locks pulled neatly back with a headband — she wouldn’t be an orphan in the first place. Right? But then there would not be a movie. Annie’s hairstyle -- a goofy Harpo Marx mop of red curls with slight degree of frizz -- is one of the worst styles on the silver screen worn by someone not openly mocked by the look. Only a precocious song-belting child could get away with a style like this and still find love. Oh, and you just know as Little Orphan Annie grows up she is so ditching that ‘do.

"The Way We Were" (1973)

This is a glaring example of how changing your hair gets you the guy, Robert Redford no less. We meet Barbra Streisand’s character as a geeky overbearing political activist with short curly hair, a dramatically different look from the neatly coiffed college girls Robert Redford hangs with. Years later, after she’s begun ironing her hair, they hook up and marry. Things don’t work out because she really never changed inside. Big surprise: After they divorce, she goes back to the goofy ‘do: The real her. Sure, she’s remarried (but you know he’s not as hot as Redford). One glimmer of hope during a chance meeting with Redford, now with a pretty, normal-looking wife: He genuinely seems to miss her despite the hair.

“Fatal Attraction” (1987)

This one is a bit tricky because Glenn Close’s wild mass of frizzy blond curls simultaneously signal her freak factor while acting as bait for Michael Douglas, who is easily seduced by her out of the lull of his routine marriage. So in this case, the wild 'do is a turn on. At first. But clearly, Close’s hair gets wilder and frizzier the nuttier she reveals herself to be, culminating in a scene at her home while listening to opera. She looks disturbed and demented as fuzzy tendrils eerily illuminate her crazed expression. Somehow, I don’t think this scene would have worked as well with the character coiffed in a sultry hair-over-one-eye Veronica Lake style.

“Dead Calm” (1989), “Days of Thunder” (1990), “Far and Away” (1992), “Portrait of a Lady” (1996)

These early Nicole Kidman movies showcase the actress’s formerly trademark long red corkscrew curls frizzed out like a giant mass of cotton candy. She plays an unglamorous role in the first, trying to save herself from a killer at sea; in “Days of Thunder” she plays a sexy doctor who gets Tom Cruise all hot under the collar so, okay, score one for the frizzies here, though it was not a leading role. The frizzy locks in “Far and Away” can be attributed to it being a period piece about Irish immigrants who, in the 1890s, barely had time to bathe. Her lead role in “Portrait of a Lady” found Kidman decidedly unglamorous. But director Jane Campion is known for her wrinkles-and-all approach, one that rejects the image of the beautiful heroine. Ergo, frizzy, unkempt mane. She’s not supposed to look beautiful. She’s supposed to look real. Kidman’s star has risen astronomically since then. Her frizz is rarely seen in film roles or tabloids. More often it’s stick straight or at the very least shows off contained curls (beaten into submission by anti-frizz product no doubt). After all, she’s a leading lady.

“Princess Diaries” (2001)

Once again, this time with Anne Hathaway as the geeky, clumsy lead, we see how frizzy hair (along with other unmentionables like shaggy brows and eyeglasses) leave little doubt this chick is living in uncool nerd-dom. She’s certainly not appropriate to take over the throne of a small European monarchy. Or course, after a Pygmalian-esqe makeover from her snooty, dignified grandmother, Julie Andrews, Hathaway gets straight well-behaved locks and, voila, she’s the “it” girl at school, a man magnet and darling of the local media. In her ascent to a more perfect life, she kept some of her klutziness, ostensibly to prove she’s human or at least not perfect. God forbid she kept the frizz.

“Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and “I'm Not There” (both 2007)

When you think of Cate Blanchett, you might think great actress, beautiful woman. Blanchett, however, does at least take risks. In two recent roles she is not at her most attractive and, surprise, sports frizzy locks. First, as Queen Elizabeth I, but here you can excuse the hair simply for being true to the time period when frizzy hair was in style and was even favored by the Queen. In her other role, in “I’m Not There,” she takes an even greater risk by looking decidedly unfeminine, donning Wayfarers and a frizzy mop of hair. And wouldn’t you know it? She’s a man, baby! And not even a cute one at that. She plays Bob Dylan.

“Sweeny Todd” (2007)

So Helena Bonham Carter is cute. Yes, even with the wacked out ‘do. But take note: She is a crazed crazy and hence, she has unkempt curly hair. Oh, and the long lost wife of Johnny Depp’s character? Yeah, she was real pretty and had nice smooth hair when they were young lovers. But — spoiler alert — guess who turns out to be the creepy, wacky, scabby-skinned woman in later scenes? You guessed it. And nothing says: “Man, I seriously need to get to a hairdresser but I’m a street urchin who’s lost her noggin’” like a head of unkempt frizz.

“A Mighty Heart” (2007)

Okay so we actually have sex queen Angelina Jolie trading in her straight locks for a tight-curl frizz look. And she is the heroine in this film. But, a big but, this is a biopic about Marianne Pearl, a beautiful woman in her own right and widow of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl. So the hair here was less about a character statement than about just looking the part. I will say I’ve never seen Jolie look less attractive. (Damn.) Though that was partly due to her having uncharacteristic dark eyes (via contacts) and little makeup. She also wore the hair on top of her head in a kind of no-style mop and looked tired, as any woman whose husband has been kidnapped by terrorists has a right to look. Still…. Troubling.

So what does all this tell us? I think frizz is indelibly etched in our minds as a problem that needs to be solved. At least in this culture. I wonder if that will ever change? Maybe someone should brainwash us all back to accepting it more. Even finding beauty in it. One can only dream of Cameron Diaz getting a perm for Charlie’s Angels III.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Worst Kind of Rejection

"Despair" by my mother

Rejection is tough. Who wants to learn you were passed over for a job because they preferred someone else to you? Or the guy you liked chose another. Or you didn't make the cut for the team or group you wanted to join.

But really, that rejection is easy.

The rejection I’m talking about is worse. Far worse.

More than five years ago, I was finally able to give my mother my kidney. She’d been on dialysis for two years. Two years too many.

It was a long journey. At first we were told I was not able to be a donor. But we got more tests and surmounted that hurdle. Then ten days before the scheduled transplant surgery, we had to hold off. I might no longer be a match, we were told. That was devastating. But we did it. Amazingly.

I think back now on how lucky we were, within, I should say, a pretty unlucky situation: My mother lost her kidney function in her 60s, seven years ago. I was pretty much her only hope since younger people on “the list” (ie, waiting for an organ to become available when, yes, sadly, someone dies) seem favored. Why? Organs are in short supply, especially kidneys in Michigan. It’s a five-year wait, unless you have a living donor.

Thankfully I could do this for her. But as one journey ended another began. My biggest fear waking from surgery? That the organ would be rejected.

These things happen.

But it took. And life, for the most part, resumed somewhat normally. My mother, no longer tethered to a daily dialysis therapy, felt better and became more like her old self.

But in the back of my mind, way back at least — always — was this: Keep working.

You see, rejection is the nemesis of any transplanted organ. That’s not my mother’s kidney in her lower right abdomen. It’s mine. Save for organ donation between identical twins, your body’s nature is to fight that foreigner. Anyone with a transplanted organ is on a steady cocktail of immunosuppressants for the rest of his or her life. Period. No cheating. You cheat on this regime and you cheat yourself.


Rejection can happen out of the blue. For no known reason. Sure, you can slack on your meds and in that case you can be sure you’ve just condemned that organ to death. Eventually. Once rejection sets in, I’m told, it’s a slow decline. A one-way ticket.


They say if they catch it early, they can manage it.

Today my mother lies in a hospital bed. Rejection. Moderate.

And it’s scary.

Her doctor says they can treat it and she can, hopefully, have the kidney a few more years. I hope that’s true. I hope it works.

* * * *

In the Hospital

So here my mother lies at a teaching hospital, where we try to digest devastating -- disappointing at the very least -- news. And we have to deal with so many questions: Whenever she’s wheeled around — from the ER to the ultrasound to the floor where she was admitted to for the next several days — everyone from nurses to med students asks her history. What meds is she on, what caused her kidney failure, what brought her here today? Did she smoke? How long? What other symptoms does she have? Do you have any pain here? How about here? Can I listen to your lungs? Do you have an advance medical directive? A living will?

It’s exhausting.

When her nephrologist came to tell us the picture was getting more “complicated” after seeing the results of the kidney biopsy, I started to feel sick. “On a scale of 1 to 3,” he began….

All I wanted to know: Does this mean she’s going back on dialysis?

Yes the news was disappointing but it could have been worse. You always — I mean always — look for the silver lining.

My father, a retired physician, once told me: “Medicine is more art than science.” That's good to know sometimes.

Still, yesterday was rough — being awakened before 6 a.m. to find my parents spent all night in the ER and now had to go to a major medical center and can I help drive in case they need help?

I was at my mother’s side until after 9 p.m. that day asking questions, digesting answers, making sense of terms I don’t know, reliving my mother’s medical history again. And again. And again. It's strangely comforting and depressing to look into kind and compassionate faces as they sympathize, saying how sweet my mother is to have to go through “all this.” It takes its toll.

By 4 p.m. I had to step outside while she had a procedure. I needed air. I longed to go sit on a the bench in a garden patio area where I spent time the day before when she had the kidney biopsy.

It was raining. It seemed a subtle slap in the face. I just wanted some sun after a full day behind windowless concrete walls.

As I stood in the small covered area outside the doors, I mostly just needed to cry. To purge my exhaustion and disappointment. I empathized with my mother, who often says god must hate her for all she’s been through. She’s been through a lot. Too much.

Later, as evening set, my mother settled into her room for the next few days, with new nurses, new faces. What did she have done? What meds does she take? As I told her nurse the story behind this newly-bandaged site on my mother’s abdomen above the kidney — where she now had a catheter placed — I paused as I leaned over my mother’s body, my right hand over the bandage.

“That’s my kidney,” I said suddenly, smiling, then catching myself, almost surprised.

My eyes welled up for an instant. It was a flicker of amazement. A flashback of all we’d gone through. Here was my organ, born from my mother to me, and now back with her.

And now it’s suffering.

That's the worst kind of rejection.